On the Hunt for Wild Yeast

Chatting with home fermentation expert Sandor Ellix Katz

Fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and pickles contain beneficial bacteria that are good for the digestive tract and immune system. They also happen to taste great and are fun to make at home, like a cross between cooking and a science project. Sandor Ellix Katz is credited with being the father of the modern home-fermentation movement. His book Wild Fermentation is the bible for people embarking on DIY projects like sourdough or sauerkraut. CHOW chatted with Katz, who lives off the grid in Tennessee, about making his own tempeh (a fermented soybean product), why eating fermented food is good for the environment, and the safety of consuming what are essentially rotting vegetables. Lessley Anderson

What are you fermenting right now?

I created a dedicated tempeh incubator from a defunct commercial fridge and an incandescent light bulb. The mold that creates tempeh thrives at 85 degrees. The fixture the light bulb is plugged into is on a thermostat, so when the temperature inside reaches 85 degrees it turns off the light bulb, and when it gets colder, it turns it on again. Now I can make 30-pound batches and experimental flavors, and that’s been really fun. I’m also curing the leg of an old dairy goat in a prosciutto style.

Can you say a little about the environmental reasons for doing home fermentation?

When we hear people talk about the carbon footprint of food, it’s always in the context of the transport of food. You don’t have people talking about the sustainability of these supermarkets with their giant footprints of refrigeration. I think it’s important that we retain this knowledge [of fermentation], and continue to pass it along and develop it. You never know—energy costs may continue to go up, and the wealthy may be the only ones who have refrigerators.

If somebody wanted to try their own wild-fermentation project—that is, fermenting something using the native yeasts and bacteria from the air—what’s one of the easiest things to ferment?

I’d start with vegetables, rather than meat, because it’s easier and essentially safe. The vegetables can get mushy or you could get surface mold [if things go wrong], but you could scrape it away and it would be safe to taste.

What would you recommend making?

Sauerkrauts made from cabbage and root vegetables are my favorites, but you really can use pretty much any kind of vegetable. Chop or grate the vegetables, salt them, do a little squeezing or pounding to get the water out [to create the brine], pack [the water and vegetables] into a jar or crock—hard enough so [the vegetable] gets submerged under its own juices—then it’s a matter of waiting a few days, or longer, depending on the flavor and texture you want.

You talk in your book about a South American beer that’s made of chewed-up corn. What’s that about, and have you tried making it?

That’s called chicha, and it’s a traditional drink from the Andes. Unlike honey or fruit juice, both of which pretty much spontaneously ferment into alcohol, grains need a preliminary step that converts the starch into sugar. There are three ways to do this, including malting (soaking and sprouting the grains) as in the Western tradition of making beer. But another way people do it involves chewing. Enzymes in our saliva convert starches into sugars. With chicha, the corn is chewed and spit out, and when you accumulate enough of these chewed corn balls, you heat them up and then ferment them. Any kinds of germs people might be freaked out about get destroyed by the heat.

I want to throw a chicha-making party and invite people via Evite. I think that would be a crack-up.

Yeah, you could do that. I’ve had some great experiments with people making chicha. Many people refused to try chewing corn for the chicha and were disgusted by the idea of it. Others watched and gawked. But a self-selected group totally got into it.

Do you think the home fermentation movement is on the rise?

I think that we’re in a moment where there’s a huge interest in food in general, and in reviving local food systems in particular, and fermentation is a really important part of the picture. If people living in temperate climates want to eat local, fermentation has to be a part of it, because some produce isn’t available year-round.

Kombucha has come back in a major way, particularly among faddish Hollywood types. Has that had an impact on the interest in fermented foods do you think?

I would see the popularity of Kombucha as being a reflection of it, not the cause. I have ambivalent feelings about Kombucha. I love it, but I think it’s sort of overemphasized or fetishized. Really, if you are going to incorporate ferments into your daily diet, I don’t think that tea and sugar—what Kombucha is based on—is the best one. Ferments that are based on vegetables and/or milk are a lot more nutritious.

What are some uses for sauerkraut, kimchee, pickles, and fermented vegetables we might not have thought of?

Most every sandwich is improved by sauerkraut. Sometimes I’ll make little hors d’oeuvres with pickled radishes or fermented leaves of cabbage, put sauerkraut in them, maybe put a little bit of cheese in there, and wrap them up with a toothpick.

You can also marinate meat in sauerkraut juice. You’ll find this in Poland; it’s called bigos. Juice of sauerkraut to me is one of the great delicacies and digestive tonics. I like to incorporate the juice into salad dressings.

Check out CHOW’s home fermentation projects:
Make your own wild-fermented ginger beer
Make your own pancetta
Make your own yogurt

Lessley Anderson is senior editor at CHOW.

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